Political Legitimacy: Lessons from Institutional Theory

So, there is an election tomorrow. A pretty big one. One that makes you want to curl up with a big bottle of whiskey. A really big bottle. But why is it so important? Why does so much of our future — not just for those of us living in the US, but the world at large — seem to depend on what happens tomorrow?

Let’s take a step back. Historically, days like tomorrow are the exception, not the rule. Our ancestors did not get to choose their leaders. This is a luxury of a small, but growing, number of countries in the last two centuries. Even when we do get to choose our leaders, it does not seem as important as the 2020 US presidential election. Had Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, John Kerry, or Mitt Romney won, would the world really be that different? On the margin, yes. In whole, probably not.

This year seems different. And it isn’t just a 2020 thing, where everything seems to be going wrong. We really seem to be near a breaking point of American democracy. WTF happened?

Four years ago, I began my brief and non-illustrious blogging career on my own website. Six days after Trump was sworn in, I posted my first post. I was inspired to say, for more or less the first time publicly, something about the current political climate. Not so much because I felt I had something novel to say about politics. That’s not my thing. My thing is more historical political institutions and how they work. That is why I write for Broadstreet. That is what that post was about.

Four years ago, I was worried about the strength of US political institutions. I still am. This worry comes not from my own political beliefs. It stems from the fact that I have spent most of the last two decades studying historical institutions — what makes them work, what makes them strong, and what makes them crumble. So, why am I so worried? A brief dig into some institutional theory will provide some clues.

What Do Political Systems Need to Function?

Political systems need two things to function: legitimacy and access to coercive power. This is true of almost any political system. On one extreme are the most totalitarian of states. Totalitarian rulers stay in power and people follow their rules at the barrel of the gun. They tend to not be that legitimate, however. How do they stay in power?

As long as totalitarian rulers are popular – perhaps because they provide public goods or economic performance is strong – they will be insulated from revolt. If I think my neighbors think that the leader is great (and why shouldn’t they? GDP was up 5% last year!), it is really dangerous for me to express anti-regime sentiments. So I probably won’t. However, as explained by Timur Kuran, this means that totalitarian states are always on the precipice of disaster. When economic performance goes south, I may be willing to revolt. My neighbors actually hated the rulers the whole time and, seeing that I am against the regime, also come out against the regime. This can snowball quickly. Once this happens, if the army (or whomever is providing coercive power) turns against them, they are toast.

Fine. But the US is not a totalitarian state, you might be thinking. That is true. So let’s think about states that do not primarily rely on the threat of coercive power. How do rulers stay in charge when coercive power is limited? This is where legitimacy plays a role.

What is legitimacy? In simple terms, (political) legitimacy is the belief that whoever leads has the right to do so and that his/her actions are just. This is different from popularity: an illegitimate leader can be popular (think, the totalitarian discussed above), and an unpopular leader can be legitimate (think, Jimmy Carter or George HW Bush when their approval ratings were in the 20s).

As I have laid out in my book and a paper with Avner Greif, there have historically been many ways that a ruler can acquire legitimacy. Some are born with it. If you are the oldest son of the previous king, you had a more legitimate claim to the throne in most medieval European states than anyone else in the kingdom. Such claims mean nothing in a democracy, where winning a free and fair election is the key to gaining legitimacy. So, how does a leader gain legitimacy in a modern democracy?

Who is Legitimate? Why?

As I lay out in my paper with Greif, societies have certain principles that determine what is legitimate. These principles differ by society and they are influenced by that society’s history. They are an amalgam of norms and institutions that guide people’s beliefs about who is the rightful leader. In democracies, this means, among other things, that institutions place the winner of a fair and free election in power. It also means norms supporting the legitimacy of that ruler and peaceful transfers of power. In Imperial China, it meant having the Mandate of Heaven (essentially, good rule is legitimate rule). In tribal societies, it may be lineage or fighting ability. Each society is different. My Broadstreet colleague Tracy Dennison made this point very nicely a few weeks ago.

The principles dictating who is legitimate can change over time, but they are really hard for any one individual to change. If you live in a democracy, you are constrained by democratic norms and institutions supporting fair elections. These norms can be undermined over time, but this is not something that just happens over night. Norms are norms for a reason – people tend to follow them and feel some sense of shame if they do not.

It is not just norms and institutions that make rulers legitimate. There are also people in any society that can bolster a leader’s legitimacy. Historically, religious figures have played an important legitimating role. In pre-modern Europe, important Church figures could make or break a king. The same could be said for important muftis or imams in the Middle East.

Of course, these religious figures would not ‘make’ a king for free. They expected something in return: say over the laws and policies of the state. By gaining a seat at the political bargaining table, these actors shaped how the state functioned, mostly to their benefit. To understand the economic performance of many historical societies, knowing who legitimated rule is key.

Are We Sitting on a House of Cards?

Where does this leave us? On the one hand, a common refrain in 2016 and 2017 was that “our institutions will save us.” We still had the rule of law. We still had three branches of government designed to constrain the others. These institutions supported each other. They legitimated each other. If knowing who legitimates rule is so important, we were in good shape. Right?

This refrain “our institutions will save us” was hardly foolish. It followed much economics research that emphasized the importance and durability of formal institutions. Institutions are bigger than any one person. But was this line of thinking correct? Are our (democratic) institutions actually saving us?

What the “our institutions will save us” crowd did not give enough credence to was just how important norms are to the functioning of institutions. This is not exactly news. Institutional theory has long focused on norms as a crucial part of the broader institutional complex.

In the current context, the relevant norms are those associated with democracy. Democratic institutions do not work unless society believes in norms supporting democracy. It is a norm to view the winner of a fair and free election as legitimate, even if one does not like the winner. Indeed, even if the leader becomes unpopular, he or she tends to be viewed as legitimate if they came to power in a legitimate fashion and acted in accordance with the rules while in power.

It is also a norm (at least, in well-functioning democracies) that everyone who has the right to vote is able to do so easily and without fear of retribution. And that foreign influences do not interfere in the election (ironic, of course, given the many foreign elections in which the US has interfered). And that there will be a peaceful transition of power. And so on. There are many norms that help support democratic governance.

All this is to say that formal democratic institutions sit perilously on a house of cards. These cards are the democratic norms that make the institutions work appropriately. When these norms change in an anti-democratic manner, democratic institutions begin to work differently. Like a house of cards, when the first card is taken away the institutions are a bit ‘wobbly’. The institutions work, just a little differently than before. But once democratic norms implode, the house tumbles along with the institutions. This isn’t just the case for democracies. It is true of any political system.

Has the Genie Been Let out of the Bottle?

In other words, formal institutions may not be as strong as they seem. They seem this way when norms reinforce the society’s institutions. In this case, institutions are really hard to change, because there is little incentive for anyone to act in a manner contrary to the behaviors supported by the institutions. This is not the case when norms change, however. The house of cards can collapse on itself, often much more quickly than people expect.

It goes without saying that democratic norms have eroded in the US in the last four years. Frankly, one could make the argument that this process was decades in the making.

Can one election solve this? Might tomorrow’s results reaffirm the strength of our democratic institutions? In short, no. The genie has been let out of the bottle. That is the thing with norms. When most people follow them (and believe that others will follow them) they are tough to change. But once they start to unravel, they are even harder to put back together again.


  • Jared Rubin

    Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. He is an economic historian interested in the role that Islam and Christianity played in the long-run “reversal of fortunes” between the economies of the Middle East and Western Europe. His book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which addresses these issues, has won multiple book awards. His book How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth (with Mark Koyama, Polity Press, 2022) explores the many theories of why modern economic growth happened when and where it did. Rubin is the Co-Director of Chapman University’s Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society (IRES), President of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (ASREC), and serves on numerous editorial boards. He graduated with a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University and a B.A. from the University of Virginia.

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